Believe it or not, we didn’t know our ancestors were from Lithuania until the past year. Christie’s grandfather didn’t know his grandfather and has little information about Kasimires Yurgelis, other than he came to the U.S in 1890. Luckily, my cousins Eric and Andrew have spent countless hours building the Finkelstein Family Tree with Ancestry.com. Eric interviewed several key family members during the 1970’s. Not only do we have some photographs, but also the name of the village, Cekiske, in Lithuania where the Finkelstein’s and Nodel’s lived.
“Finkelstein” means diamond or “sparkle stone” and reflects our forefather’s trade as gem merchants during the 1800’s. Our experience around Kaunas and Cekiske (check-keesh-ke) revealed that most non-Jewish villagers worked for Jewish merchants during that time.
We hopped a few 1 1/2 hour bus rides from Vilnius (capital city) to Kaunas and then Cekiske. Kaunas (Kovno in Polish) is the academic and cultural center of Lithuania. And, it’s a former capital and thriving center for commerce…… where Jews led business. According to the Russian census of 1897, Jews numbered 25,500 or 35.3% of Kaunas’ population. 65% of Cekiske’s population of 700 were Jewish. In 1887, a fire broke out in Cekiske and burned all of its houses, including the two prayer houses. About 160 families remained without shelter. I believe the fires coupled with increasing oppression by the Russian Empire led to my family’s departure to the United States.
It’s a damn good thing my family left. By the 1920’s, Kaunas’ Jewish population grew to about 40,000 and became one of Europe’s most prestigious places of Jewish learning. Before and during the German occupation, the anti-Communists began to attack Jews, blaming them for the Soviet oppressions. They murdered more than 3,800 Jews before the Nazis established the Kovno ghetto and started killing the rest. Out of approximately 210,000 Jews in Lithuania, an estimated 195,000 were murdered before the end of World War II. This was like 7% of Lithuania’s population completely eliminated.
As we approached Cekiske, my spirits were super alert and surprised at the landscape. We must have driven through hundreds of acres of well groomed farmland. I had imagined Cekiske as a small urban town closer to Kaunas. The sky was blue with beautiful thick cloud formations. Suddenly, my eyes latched onto an image of a man’s face. I had chills running down my spine. Could this be my great, great, great grandfather……. David Falk Finkelstein? As he faded away, we landed in the late afternoon excited to find some food, the old Synagogue and Jewish Cemetery.
About 800 people currently reside in Cekiske. There is one small market, a church and Christian cemetery. That’s it! We felt like characters in the movie “Children of the Corn” as a few drunk locals started following us to see why we’d visit such a place. The market had a deli case and a huge assortment of pastries including raspberry danishes, skones and apple cookies. I immediately thought these foods to be of Jewish influence.
We found a boy who spoke English and showed us where the old Synagogue and cemetery was. The Synagogue is lodged between two homes and hasn’t been touched in decades. We could not find a way in! The next day in Kaunas, we met with Justyna from Cekiske via Couchsurfing.org. We had dinner and drinks (with Justyna & Laura) and talked about their childhood. They remember getting into the Synagogue with classmates. They even had school trips to groom the old Jewish Cemetery. Coincidently, The boy who randomly pointed us to these places is Justyna’s 15 year old brother. Talk about a small world!
I researched the organization responsible for maintaining the Lithuanian Jewish Cemeteries. Their map was clear and I was confident in finding the location. We wound up walking through the Christian Cemetery behind the church before stopping to ask for help at the “Biblioteka”. We struggled for several minutes playing charades to explain what we were doing before a young man named “Raimondas” volunteered to take us to the farm where the cemetery lies. Apparently, locals call Jewish people Hebrews and it clicked once I drew a Jewish star. It was like Lithuanian Pictionary!
Raimondas was so kind and drove us all the way to the cemetery and even went with us on our adventure to document each gravestone. We drove about 1.5km south of town to a dirt road leading through a small farm. We walked across two long pieces of wood and over a thick chain fence. Through the woods and out into the pasture stood about 40 tombstones. We would have never found it without Raimondas’ help. I had read about a man who visited in 1997 and reported 63 tombstones in good condition with freshly cut grass. This was not the scene. The cemetery is overgrown with many tombstones in ruins. All writings are in Hebrew, mostly illegible, so further investigation needs to take place.
We left Kaunas satisfied and inspired to learn more about our Lithuanian ancestors. Our new friends offered to help us research the church records in Cekiske. They believe there is more information there than in the official administrative records in Vilnius. Justyna’s father is a history teacher and she invited us to spend time with her family in Cekiske. We had a fantastic dinner and evening stroll around Kaunas with Justyna and Laura. In such a short time, we learned so much about Lithuania and Cekiske from the wonderful people we met.
Since Lithuanians take huge pride in their basketball, I had to ask about University of Maryland alumni Šarūnas Jasikevičius. I never knew about his mother’s heroic story, declining the Olympic Volleyball Team in favor of delivering baby Sarunas. The Russians put enormous pressure on her and she held strong. He is still playing in Europe and on the Lithuanian National team. Sarunas Video
Our plan is to return in a few weeks to meet up with Justyna (Cekiske), Sagita & Vidas (Vilnius) and continue the process before seeing Pearl Jam in Prague.
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